VC backs challenger to Broadcast.com

After big scores investing in Lycos and Geocities, CMGI hopes to pull off the trifecta with a $100 million (£60 million) investment in an Internet broadcast start-up to be run by the former president of the NBC television network.Having profited handsomely by taking early stakes in both Lycos (Nasdaq:LCOS) and Geocities (Nasdaq:GCTY) -- industry observers say CMGI'd investment may help speed the takeoff of Web broadcasting, a category that until now has been dominated by Broadcast.

After big scores investing in Lycos and Geocities, CMGI hopes to pull off the trifecta with a $100 million (£60 million) investment in an Internet broadcast start-up to be run by the former president of the NBC television network.

Having profited handsomely by taking early stakes in both Lycos (Nasdaq:LCOS) and Geocities (Nasdaq:GCTY) -- industry observers say CMGI'd investment may help speed the takeoff of Web broadcasting, a category that until now has been dominated by Broadcast.com (Nasdaq:BCST).

"This is testimony that the RealNetworks and Broadcast.coms of the world have caught the eye of traditional media companies," said analyst Ron Rappaport of Zona Research. "$100 million is not a drop in the bucket. [CMGI] is a company that realizes there's money to be made in broadcasting audio and video content across the Web." Web broadcasting has attracted attention in the aftermath of such widely-publicised broadcasts as the videotaped testimony of President Clinton's House judiciary committee testimony and the funeral for Princess Diana.

Internet audio and video, which generally uses "streaming media" technology developed by RealNetworks or Microsoft , has more than television-style glamour and advertising possibilities going for it. Because it is tied into the fabric of the Internet, it also has possibilities for interactive marketing and e-commerce.

For example, users attracted by the video of a product could buy products with a few mouse clicks, netting the broadcaster a commission in the process. Analysts see a lot of revenue potential in the convergence of audio and video with the already-hot markets of online community and e-commerce. Indeed, they say that trend will likely drive the growth of companies such as Broadcast.com and CMGI's still unnamed venture. "The onus is on companies to find out how streaming media complements e-commerce and business-related models," said analyst Rappaport. "But it's not necessarily an end unto itself, it complements the Web experience." Neil Braun, who will head the company, said the still unnamed firm will debut during the second quarter of the year.

Observers say the new company could turn up the heat on Broadcast.com. But in the same breath, they expect the market to grow fast enough to accommodate several players. By way of comparison, they note how competition has flourished in the crowded Web portal market. "We think it's great that more people are getting involved in Internet broadcasting," said a Broadcast.com spokesman. "We're the first movers in this space -- but -- there's plenty of room for others." In fact, CMGI probably is less concerned about Broadcast.com than a class of competitor that has barely even discovered the Internet so far: The television networks.

"The sense or relief is that if you can get large enough fast enough, you can be the NBC, CBS, ABC of tomorrow," said analyst Rob Enderle of Giga Information Group. "The advantage of getting in the game now is you don't have to compete with the networks yet. Broadcast.com is just a bump on the road to where CMGI and Braun want to go." The new company could have one immediate advantage: It will be part of CMGI, which has investments in a broad spectrum of more than 30 other Internet companies.

"This could be the picture-perfect example of VC nepotism," said analyst Jae Kim of media research firm Paul Kagan Associates. He compared the CMGI model to Softbank, the Ziff-Davis Inc. parent which has amassed a large paper fortune with investments in Yahoo!, E-Trade and others. (Ziff-Davis publishes ZDNet.) "What these guys are doing is creating a microcosm of the Web, trying to seed investments in companies involved in the most critical junctions of the Internet.